Joe Strummer, the pioneering punk rock musician, former front man of the Clash, and political activist, died of a rare heart condition at his home in Somerset, Broomfield, England at the age of fifty on December 22, 2002. Barely twenty-five years earlier the Clash burst onto the London music scene to become one of the great rebel rock bands of all time—fusing a mélange of musical styles, with riotous live performances, and left-wing political activism, that inspires many to this day.
By the mid 1970s, England’s postwar prosperity was melting away into rising unemployment, shrinking social service programs, and increasing poverty. The wrecked economy fueled an incendiary social situation as racism, xenophobia, and police brutality became the order of the day. Mounting feelings of anger, frustration, and a deepening sense of isolation left much of English youth feeling hopeless. Trying to make sense of this mess, many found a means of expression in punk rock. More than just hard driving rock and roll, punk rock was heralded by many as a counterculture movement, a philosophy, and a way of life. Punk stood in direct opposition, aesthetically and politically, to the reigning rock establishment—then dominated by a style called “glam rock”—and it attacked conventional society. Glam was pretentious, overproduced, slick, and bourgeois. Punk rock, in stark contrast, was angry, loud, aggressive, and rooted in working/lower class alienation. With its four chords, simple catchy melodies, fast tempo, and ironic witty lyrics it proved irresistible.
Strummer told me the Clash was inspired by groups like the MC5 of Detroit, a cultural organ of the White Panthers, “We wanted to be more like them, using our music as a loud voice of protest…punk rock, at the heart of it, should be protest music.” While most bands spiraled into ridiculous caricatures of themselves, the Clash, under Strummer’s influence, became the definitive punk rock band. They drew a line in the sand and dared all to cross it and join them. While the Sex Pistols spent their time being reactionary, tawdry, and snide, the Clash were active, thoughtful, and serious.
Throughout his twenty-five years in music, Strummer touched millions. Billy Bragg, a fellow English musician and activist inspired by Strummer’s socially conscious music, said it best, describing Strummer as unwavering in “his commitment to making political pop culture.” Living true to his words, Strummer held onto his political ideals throughout his life in spite of intense media rancor and the highly demanding expectations of fans as they clung to his every word as if it were scripture. The pressure would have crushed a lesser person.
Like many people growing up during the Reagan era, discovering the Clash transformed my world view. It was nothing like I had ever heard before. The music’s energy, spirit, and searing lyrics gave voice to feelings of alienation and hopelessness, as well as anger and defiance, that I had not yet articulated.
Through his songwriting Strummer consistently critiqued capitalism, advocated racial justice and opposed imperialism. He showed young people there are alternatives to the complacency, opportunism, and political ambivalence that dominate popular culture. Strummer’s music remains an enduring legacy of radicalism, defiance, and resistance.
In April 2002, I had the good fortune to meet with Joe Strummer on several occasions, discussing a wide-range of issues. One theme emerged repeatedly in these conversations—using the past to better understand the present and shape the future was fundamental to Strummer’s creative activism. May 1968 in Paris, the student and labor movements of Italy’s hot autumn, and the election and overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile were just some of the key events that Strummer cited to explain his politicization. Punk rock, and Strummer in particular, would borrow heavily from these movements—not just ideologically but aesthetically as well. “Punk rock for me was a social movement” he states, “we tried to do the things politically we thought were important to our generation and hopefully would inspire another generation to go even further.”
As a musician, Strummer redefined music and reaffirmed the principles of committed and intelligent opposition. He seemed to be involved in so many different movements and supported so many causes before they were fashionable. The Clash were at the forefront of the Rock against Racism movement founded in the seventies to combat the rise of the far-right National Front. Never afraid of controversy, Strummer pushed the Clash to support publicly the H-Block protests in Northern Ireland, which began in 1976 when the British took away the political status of IRA “prisoners.” He performed for the last time on November 15, 2002 at a benefit for striking London firefighters. For someone who used his music to galvanize and promote progressive action, this final performance was most fitting.
Strummer’s unique partnership with Mick Jones, his main collaborator and lead guitarist in the Clash, brought a revolutionary sense of excitement to modern music. Strummer and Jones quickly recognized the power of rap music that was just emerging from New York City’s underground in the late seventies. “When we came to the U.S., Mick stumbled upon a music shop in Brooklyn that carried the music of Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five, the Sugar Hill Gang…these groups were radically changing music and they changed everything for us.”
With typical Clash inventiveness, they became one of the first white groups to incorporate rap into their music. As a tribute to the path-breaking Sugar Hill Gang, the Clash recorded The Magnificent Seven, one of their best-known and most important singles. In another example that marked the Clash’s commitment to challenging social conventions, they enlisted several New York City rap groups to join their huge Clash on Broadwaytour. At the time, this was extremely controversial since it was widely believed that combining the two disparate audiences and musical genres would result in racial mayhem.
Reflecting on the group’s influence, I suggested to Strummer that hip-hop has replaced punk rock as the dominant political pop cultural force in spirit, vitality, and creativity. He responded, “No doubt about it, particularly in respect to addressing the ills of capitalism and providing a smart class analysis, underground hip-hop, not the pop-culture stuff, picked up where punk left off and ran full steam ahead.”
The Greatest Rebel Rock Band of All Time
On New Year’s Eve 1976, the Clash played as an opening act for the top-billed Sex Pistols. Impressed, the Sex Pistols asked the Clash to join them on the infamous 1977 “Anarchy in the UK” tour which, due to the wild and foolish antics by some of the bands, intense media scrutiny, and police harassment, labeled punk rock as public enemy number one. While parents, police, and politicians sounded the alarm, young people were hooked.
Strummer, a former busker and squatter, characterized the early days as filled with both hope and frustration. “Many in the punk scene were confused, mixing various political ideologies.” The effect was that punk rock musicians were easy targets for ridicule and attack by the monarchy, media, parliament, and the police. According to Strummer, the objective was to present a clearer, unified stance with a more thoughtful and relevant political message. It was also obvious to Strummer early on that punk rock was vulnerable to co-optation by the music industry with the eager assistance of opportunistic musicians. He indicted them for this with a song, White Man in Hammersmith Palais:
Punk rockers in the UK
They won’t notice anyway
They’re all too busy fighting
For a good place under the lighting
The new groups are not concerned
With what there is to be learned
They got Burton suits, hah you think it’s funny
Turning rebellion into money
All over people changing their votes
Along with their overcoats
If Adolf Hitler flew in today
They’d send a limousine anyway
Strummer blamed many of the bands of the time for allowing punk rock to degenerate into a “shameful product hawked by the record companies” and “used to promote right wing ideals.” In no way did he want to be part of the creative and social diluting of the punk rock philosophy. The Clash’s eponymous first studio album clearly marked where they stood on things.
The album addressed social issues including classism, racism, and police and state sanctioned brutality. By bringing together a broad range of musical influences, which had previously been segregated by the music industries marketing strategies, it significantly changed modern music. There were brilliant covers of old rock classics, infusions of R&B, fractured pop, a well-balanced mix of ska, dub, and reggae, and of course what became the signature sound of the Clash: thought provoking lyrics sung in Strummer’s unique Cockney accent, a blistering and angry style layered over aggressive compositions.
The Clash’s music, coupled with its explosive live performances, let people know that they were not only a creative bunch but also that they had something important to say on the state of things. Although produced for next to nothing, the Clash’s first album became the largest selling American import in music history. America loved the Clash’s music and its message, and the record companies took note.
“The same issues we were struggling against then are even more important now like British and US imperialism.” Strummer continues, “when we wrote I’m So Bored with the U.S.A., it touched a nerve for young people on both sides of the Atlantic.” The lyrics are sharp and compelling:
Yankee dollar talk
To the dictators of the world
In fact it’s giving orders
An’ they can’t afford to miss a word
Other songs addressed the growing disaffection young people felt as they faced the harsh realities of the job market in 1976. Career Opportunities became a classic protest song for many:
They offered me the office, offered me the shop
They said I’d better take anything they’d got
Do you wanna make tea at the BBC?
Do you wanna be, do you really wanna be a cop?
Career opportunities are the ones that never knock
Every job they offer you is to keep you out the dock
Career opportunity, the ones that never knock
“Industrial society offered nothing really, and as we moved to this more fragmented society with more emphasis on technology the state was looking for us to work according to our class… it all seemed about controlling class, particularly the lower classes.”
Clashing with America
In 1979, the Clash headed to America. In between this tour and the first album the Clash had conquered the UK and Europe. They released another album Give ‘Em Enough Rope and were in the process of putting together the Clash “masterpiece,” London Calling. “Two devastating things happened at this time,” Strummer recalls. “Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of England and Ronald Reagan became President of the U.S….it was hard to tell who would be worse but we knew that a tremendous struggle was ahead…their tendencies leaned to the far-right if not fascism.”
The Clash always drew inspiration from, and paid homage to, other rebel musicians, especially black musicians from the United States and the Caribbean. Still, it was when they collaborated with these musicians that they ran head-on into the racism of the music industry, and some of their fans. While touring the United States the Clash had selected the pioneering American rock-n-roll artist, Bo Diddley, as their opening act. Diddley was a hero to Strummer. The Clash were excited that the tour would help them connect with their American audience. However, they were shocked by the intense racism the tour encountered in the South because of Diddley’s presence. “The record label was unsupportive from the word go because Give ‘Em [Enough Rope] did not sell like our first album, they hated our choice of Bo Diddley and we refused to pick a different support act and resisted their attempt to repackage us as new wave.” Strummer and his band mates were determined to resist pressure from industry bosses to refashion punk rock into the more commercial, less political, and more docile new wave mold.
The lack of record support was just the start. Strummer recalled his disappointment with the bad press that greeted the Clash in the United States labeling them “evil punk rockers” looking to “spread communism to American youth.” The short eight-date-tour further politicized Strummer. He felt it opened his eyes to the “commodification of music” and “exposed the terrible resistance and hatred of anything that attempts to grow outside the dominant economic and social structure.” On the other hand, there were a few shows like the legendary performance at New York’s Palladium that taught Strummer an important lesson. “We must use negative situations” Strummer said, “to refocus and redirect anger and frustration and fashion music that is powerful to all who listen, always upsetting the status quo.”
London Calls and So Do the Sandinistas
Upon the completion of the American tour, the Clash began their next album, London Calling. It showed maturity and growth in many areas. Musically it incorporated roots music, folk, New Orleans R&B, reggae, pop, lounge jazz, ska, hard rock, and punk. Recorded in New York City, the landmark album still is influential. I related to Strummer my own experience of hearing the album for the first time. The themes, music and attitude sharply mirrored my own reality as a kid in an immigrant family growing up in an industrial park in the mid 1980s.
One song in particular, Clampdown, affected me deeply. The song is a pointed and stark account of work in Darwinian capitalist society. At its core, the song presents the contradictions that force us to believe that if only we work hard, don’t complain, and don’t rock the boat, we can get ahead. Step on whomever you wish, it doesn’t matter, just look out for number one.
The song expressed the anxieties of working-class youth who were wanted only for menial jobs, to be part of the state’s repressive apparatus, or to join racist right-wing movements.
You grow up and you calm down
You’re working for the clampdown
You start wearing the blue and brown
You’re working for the clampdown
So you got someone to boss around
It makes you feel big now
You drift until you brutalize
You made your first kill now
The same song also advocates an alternative, a common Strummer theme, the need for working-class rebellion:
The judge said five to ten—but I say double that again
I’m not working for the clampdown
No man born with a living soul
Can be working for the clampdown
Kick over the wall, cause government’s to fall
How can you refuse it?
Let fury have the hour, anger can be power
D’you know that you can use it?
“Yeah” Strummer begins, “this song and our overall message was to wake-up, pay attention to what really is going on around you, politically, socially all of it…before you know it you have become what you despise.” The album catapulted the Clash into the international spotlight. They played and the world listened. Being the biggest rock band on the planet at the time brought increased attention and the inevitable harsh criticism, particularly in regards to the political stance of Strummer and the group.
The redbaiting and right-wing attacks increased ten fold when the Clash publicly supported the Sandinista Revolution. “Our support of the Sandinistas was the worst thing in the world we could do according to our record label” Strummer recalled, “the label heads said our music would not sell—too political—especially in America where the Reagan administration was conspiring to destroy the Sandinistas.” Strummer wrote Washington Bullets criticizing the U.S. involvement in Central and South America, while noting Jimmy Carter’s last-minute withdrawal of aid to the Samoza regime:
As every cell in Chile will tell
The cries of the tortured men
Remember Allende, and the days before,
Before the army came
Please remember Victor Jara,
In the Santiago Stadium,
Es verdad—those Washington bullets again
For the very first time ever,
When they had a revolution in Nicaragua,
There was no interference from America
Human rights in America
Well the people fought the leader,
And up he flew,
With no Washington bullets what else could he do?
In 1980, the Clash released the triple album Sandinista. The long simmering disputes with their label, Epic, became a pitched battle when the band demanded that the album be priced affordably, by which they meant the usual price of one album. Epic finally relented, but only after the Clash agreed to cover the difference out of their pockets. “Political decisions never balance out well with business unless of course they’re capitalist based political decisions…if we did an album in support of the Contras it would have been different” Strummer joked. Whether due to Epic’s resistance, the political controversy, or to fans put off by the group’s constant musical experimentation, the sales of Sandinista were disappointing compared to London Calling. Nonetheless, the Clash’s following was growing.
A Big Hit and Then a Crash
Combat Rock, released in 1982, again highlighted the social consciousness and leftist politics that forever distinguish the band and Strummer. With the release of the single, Rock the Casbah, the Clash had a huge hit on their hands. The song had been written as an exuberant response to an Islamic cleric’s ban on rock music. In an ironic twist, imperialists have appropriated the song to their own ends. “You know the U.S. military played this song in the first Gulf War to the troops and now are using it again as they prepare for war,” Strummer shared, “this is just typical and despicable.”
At Shea Stadium in Queens, New York, in 1982, the Clash played a series of sold out shows reminiscent of the Beatles performance there many years before. These were the last shows with Mick Jones, who was forced out of the band by Strummer and the band’s manager. Strummer confided, “I committed one of the greatest mistakes of my life with the sacking of Mick.” After releasing an atrocious album in 1985, the Clash broke up for good. Sadly, Strummer and Jones did not share a stage again until the benefit concert that was Strummer’s final public performance.
‘I’m Gonna Keep Fightin’ for What I Believe Is Right’
Strummer’s originality is a trait characterizing both the man and the musician. With his most recent and final music project, the Mescaleros, Strummer was reborn. Remarkably, his new music displays a steadfast work ethic both creatively and politically. Irrespective of what he had accomplished up to this point in his career, I had a sense that he was restless and that his best work lay ahead.
Strummer and the Mescaleros recorded two highly innovative studio albums, Rock Art and the X-Ray Style in 1999, and Global A Go-Go in 2001. The music Strummer recorded with the Mescaleros is as culturally diverse a sound as I’ve heard. There are the familiar influences of rockabilly, traditional rock-n-roll and R&B, but added to the mix are new sounds. Strummer brought together music from Africa, Latin America, and the West Indies as well as heavy doses of hip-hop style beats.
The albums showcase a renewed, vibrant Joe Strummer producing music that is remarkably different from his previous work. I mentioned that I watched a taped interview in which he cautioned young people not to buy his new music if all they wanted was a replay of Rock the Casbah. I ask him to elaborate. “Simple”, he said, “new bands are going around saying we love the Clash but they have no sense or understanding of history” neither culturally nor politically. He added that they “pick up the new stuff and expect to hear songs like Rock the Casbah, which is not at all what I am doing now and furthermore Casbah is easy….” The word “easy” was a serious putdown from an artist who worked always to be challenging.
Like his work with the Clash, the new music with the Mescaleros is original and political, but more insightful and mature. With the musical growth there is a deepening of political consciousness reflected in stunning compositions and poetic, freely associative lyrics concerning a host of global subjects. Both albums focus on many social issues but most poignantly Global A Go-Go captures Strummer’s take on how war, poverty, and intolerance are ripping the world apart. Songs like Johnny Appleseed chart the impact of globalization and Bhindi Bhagee discusses the need for ethnic tolerance. The songs are intelligent Woody Guthrie-like meditations but with a multicultural internationalist awareness that stands against global capitalism. Shaktar Donetsk laments the fate of refugees, seeking an illegal haven in England, who suffocated in a smuggler’s truck:
Welcome to Britain! In the Third Millennium
This is the diary of a Macedonian
He went to Britain in the back of lorry
Don’t worry, don’t worry, don’t hurry
Said the man with a plan
He said, if you really wanna go
You’ll get there in the end
If you really wanna go
Alive or dead my friend
Well you can levitate you know
Long as the money’s good you’re in
Strummer left much unfinished. With Bono of U2 and Dave Stewart formerly of the Eurythmics, he was working on a song in tribute to Nelson Mandela titled 48864, after Mandela’s prison number. They were going to perform it together at the end of the Mandela SOS AIDS benefit concert for Africa, on Robben Island on February 2. The Clash had planned a one-night-only reunion at the Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in March 2003.
Speaking on the day of Strummer’s death, Billy Bragg found the right words once again, “Joe was always breaking new ground musically and politically…he is one of the last artists who was not afraid to be on the left politically, a thorn in the side of capitalism.” Chuck D, pathbreaking rap artist and founding member of Public Enemy, credited Strummer and groups like the Clash with “showing me that music can be a powerful social force and it must be used to challenge the system.”
At the end of each show, Strummer and the Mescaleros performed a cover of the classic resistance song The Harder They Come, the Harder They Fall by reggae great Jimmy Cliff. As with all he did Strummer put his indelible mark and unique spin on the song. Playing the same Telecaster guitar he started out with over twenty-five years ago and using his cutting, brash voice with uncompromising bluster, he let us know:
And I keep on fighting for the things I want
Though I know that when you’re dead you can’t
But I’d rather be a free man in my grave
Than living as a puppet or a slave…